1.8.10

In Search of Alfred


1.  The Dilettante Can't Take the Heat
The Dilettante, living the dream of his good friend Helen Bass, decided to get lost last Thursday.

 Turning off the main road to Hamilton House, the pace slows immediately, crossing the falls past this old mill.  At the next turn, one is on a narrow country lane between hedgrows, feeling rather like Toad on a summer drive.

On the way home on a business trip, with work left to do, driving in staggering heat and traffic ('traffic' being a euphemism for almost endless interstate highway road construction slow-downs through Massachusetts and New Hampshire), I cracked, and rather than continue responsibly on my way to the day's final destination, at 3:49 PM I veered left, off  I-95 at exit 2 and up Rte. 127 to South Berwick and Hamilton House, one of the loveliest destinations in Maine.

At the end of a narrow country lane, the grassy drive to Hamilton House. 

So, you thought this was going to be a post about Hamilton House?  Fooled ya.  I took lots of pictures, but that will be another day.  After leaving Hamilton House, considerably refreshed, and too late to resume my business schedule, I decided to take a long route to Portland, and detour through Alfred, Maine, in search of a distinctive house I saw on a family outing forty years ago and had never forgotten.

The gate to a Friends cemetary in North Berwick on the way to Alfred

 A classic early 19th century Federal in North Berwick village, based on Asher Benjamin designs, in need of some tlc and shrubbery removal, but blessedly spared the plastic shutter/replacement window curse---so far.  Notice the elegant globe tracery of the fan over the door.
 
2. Finding Alfred
The road running northeast from South Berwick to Sanford is a mostly lovely one, with only a blessedly brief incidence of strip malls, winding through an old landscape of farms, and the charming village of North Berwick.  After North Berwick, signs became confusing, and obviously I misread them, because rather than arriving in Alfred, I wound up in the city of Sanford, an interesting old company town, prosperous and neat, still bearing the name of its industrial patron, Mr. Goodall, on most of its public buildings and former factories.

Downtown Alfred, Maine, arranged around its tidy village green, the horse watering trough now used as a planter for flowers.

Eventually, I was headed straight again, and in the waning afternoon light at last arrived in Alfred, a neat little town arranged around a village green surrounded by mostly 19th century buildings in good repair, and a few small businesses.  I was surprised to find that this rural little town, on Bungamut Lake, and site of a former Shaker settlement, is also the Shiretown of York County.


Seen in the early evening light, everything about 'downtown' Alfred speaks of friendliness and pride in the village. Not too polished, not too gritty, but just right, and friendly.  How can one not fall in love with a village whose library sports a 'Summer Reading Party, Tuesday Evening' sign on its lawn?

This unusually long 18th century house was once the village tavern

 The inscription on the war memorial on the village green charmingly troubles to mention that it is made from locally quarried granite

I particularly liked this early 19th century Federal with 1850's Italianate enhancements, maintained with pitch perfect understatement

A Barn at the edge of the Shaker village on the outskirts of town is now a museum.  The rest of the Shaker village, for many years a Catholic retreat, has been so thoroughly vinyl sided and cinder block dormitoried as to be un-photographable

At  first I couldn't find the house that had sparked my drive to this lovely place, and finally it emerged, hidden in semi-desuetude behind overgrown Hemlocks (when young, Hemlock trees are among my favorites, yet when mature, nothing spells 'gloom' better).   And missing from the house was the distinctive feature that had captured my imagination as a teenager.

 The Holmes house

3.  Missing parts
The house in question is the Holmes House, built in 1802 by John Holmes, the first senator from what was then the District of Maine, still part of Massachussets.   It is a most unusual house for the time and place, with a portico of 14 columns, each turned from a single pine trunk.  Such porticos made very rare appearances in New England before the Greek Revival style took hold in the second quarter of the 19th century.   A few such houses were built in suburban Boston, then countryside, in the late 18th century by a group of Boston merchants with connections in the Barbadian rum and sugar trade, where they picked up the ideas for columned porches.   One is tempted to wonder whether seeing these, or perhaps images of America's most famous portico, Mt. Vernon, inspired Holmes to build his, certainly the first in Maine. Oddly proportioned, folky and naive, it is undeniably more interesting as an anomaly than  it is beautiful, but lovely in its details.

Depression-era photographs of the front & rear elevations of the Holmes house, from the Historic American Buildings Survey.  The rear view demonstrates the 19th century custom, still in evidence in my childhood in the 1960's, of painting the rear elevations in a cheaper color, with the front elevations in more expensive white.  Modern paint manufacture has leveled the playing field, and this charming detail is rarely seen anymore.

 The Adamesque parlor mantel, with applied composition ornament likely imported from Boston or England, a rare refinement in rural Maine in the early 19th century.

The legend surrounding the bow and arrow panels in the roof balustrade is that Holmes was believed by racist political enemies to have Indian blood, and though he did not, his response was to have the local blacksmith fashion the bows and arrows as his response.   As sad as this sort of story makes the modern listener, the fact is that they are beautiful examples of early American ironwork, and a most distinctive design feature.

Drawings of the Holmes House from the Historic American Buildings Survey.  The tightly curved stair has a shallow dome at the second floor level.  A singular blend of sophisticated ideas and naive design execution, the Holmes house is a one-off in the story of Maine architecture, and it is sad in the extreme that it is not surviving well in the 21st century.

The house was originally built around a small courtyard, although demolition of the original kitchen long ago has changed the shape to an 'L'.  Inside was a curving staircase, and a mantel decorated with imported composition ornament, a relative rarity in rural Maine in this era. (for the ultimate example in Maine, visit the Ruggles House, here).

4.  An Arrow Through My Heart
 And now for the shock:  The balustrade is gone.  The house, neither well maintained nor totally neglected, lacks its signature feature, the balustrade, unique in Maine.  And while the Dilettante understands all too well the economics of such things, and has not been able to determine its fate (although I have a sinking feeling that the extraordinary  iron bow & arrow that I saw at an Antiques show last year, reminding me strongly of the ones at the Holmes house, may well have been one from the Holmes house.

The entrance of the Holmes House.  Gone from the entry are the shutters and louvered overdoor fan that echoed the upstairs door to the balcony.  Seeing painting in progress, and repaired clapboards, one hopes that it is merely in storage for painting, and not lost also.

One can't save everything, and of course one man's treasure is another man's trash, but to see one of the important early architectural features of Maine possibly lost is a sad thing.  Preservation is an iffy thing in America, and too much goes unappreciated.   One can only hope that the balustrade is stored and waiting to be replaced....but if even Samuel Yellin's studio cannot be preserved, and is raped for salvage and profit,  what hope for the work of an anonymous Maine blacksmith of the early 19th century?

Postscript:  Coincidence

 Senator John Holmes, anonymous 19th century portrait

As I was typing the first draft of this post earlier today, the estimable and ever entertaining architectural historian Christopher Monkhouse happened to pay a call.  When I told him what I was writing, he replied how funny it was that I should mention it, as he had recently thought about a Gilbert Stuart-ish portrait of the same John Holmes, painted in the early 19th century, that he had once owned.

18 comments:

BWS said...

What a wonderful adventure! Thank you.

alaine@éclectique said...

Thank you for 'veering off'; I enjoyed that so much!

Reggie Darling said...

Great post DED. Fascinating, really. Reminds me of the sickening saying: "In preservation, every victory is temporary, every defeat is permanent." Not always absolutely accurate, as one is aware of buildings that have been brought back from the brink, but they are very rare exceptions. I look forward to your post about the ever-exquisite Hamilton House, which too has suffered depredations, but remains charming still. And such a setting! Yours, Reggie

Turner Pack Rats said...

OMG - OMG - i can't believe it. i think this is the same house that i drooled over as a child. we had relatives in n. berwick and went through alfred on the way several times a year. once, we even stopped and went to church in that iconical church on the green. there was a house that looked sad but great in its sadness that i always stared at and longed for in alfred and i'm sure this is the place. it looked better (and worse) then. i thought - why didn't he just stop and ask but being from here, i knew that yankee reticence would never permit that. those posts are probably stored right out back in the shed.

security word def - "elilisc" - can't define this as i sold my 19th century calculus book to Emerson Antiques (but i got a good deal on the Brooklin bridge)

Raina Cox said...

The bow and arrow feature is (was) stunning.

Senator Holmes was sassy.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

sadly yes, so many people don't hold preservation in the same light as some of us. At least the house hasn't gone too far to be saved!
Love the little hilltop classical library you show above in Alfred!

Dovecote Decor said...

Oh those Shakers!! They should be in the WTF file. They didn't leave decedents, but they did bequeath a Spartan style, that my 88 year old Mother lives for. She did have 7 children and 13 Grand children, but she shakes her cane at the produce man at King Cullen in Glen Cove when he runs out of oranges on special!!

Janet said...

Another great post - loved the measured drawings!
Growing up in Nova Scotia in the 40's and 50's of the last century, we would have been considered Maine's poor relations, and we frequently just simply didn't paint the sides and backs of our houses at all. Cut paint consumption by three quarters!

Rose C'est La Vie said...

I thought, Oh No, I can't read all this but then I enjoyed your detour very much. And believe it or not, I went on to read about the Ruggles House.

I think these old houses are even more romantic to an English person? I must return to the American Museum in Bath after many years because it holds a kind of elusive magic in my memory.. perhaps something akin to what you treasured in Alfred.

little augury said...

to veer off so- if we could all detour now and then. To turn up a wit such as Holmes House is worth all the catching up. I was intrigued by the arrow motif,certainly something with meaning to the owner- a way to stand against rumor,very appealing. It is a constant stream of decrepit grace in the South as well, falling to the ground. I hope this one does not go that road. A fantastic post. pgt

Janet said...

Love following the Dillettante over the highways and byways of Maine (the best being these byways). Please, more detours like this!

mainelysal said...

I lived across the street from the bow and arrow house. For several years my mother and friend had an antique shop, the Alfred Forge, where the bow and arrows were made. Many of us miss the bow and arrows which were a unique part of this once beautiful home.

Beth said...

Yup, that's my hometown, Alfred. Nice post. Alfred was a great town to grow up in. It looks the same although many things have surely changed.

MPH said...

I grew up literally across the street from the Bow & Arrow House and my parents still operate the flower shop you took photos of.

I believe the family who lives there took the iron bows and arrows out at least 10 to 15 years ago. I never understood why they would do such a thing...as this was downtown Alfred's definitive building.

Perhaps someday they will sell the house and a new owner will restore the house to its former state of glory.

Anonymous said...

The current owners teenage childre kicked the bow and arrow railing down one day........and the family has no respect for teh homes history and is letting it fall to ruin. Soon it will be another Lost Landmark. I have this on Good authority by a witness who saw them doing it. By the way, its Bunganut Lake not, Bungamut Lake! nut not mut!

Anonymous said...

I live not far from Alfred, and I have watched this home deteriorate for many years now, and It is very sad to see it in this disastrous condition. My opinion, of course.

I was going to speak to the owners, to encourage them to maintain it, or ask the very good state-wide preservation organization for help. However, the neighbors said they’d already tried, and not to bother unless I could afford to bribe the family to sell it.

The sign in front of the home insists there is a dance academy located there, but friends say the only dance steps they’ve see were the family’s children dancing across the porch roof as they KICKED the priceless balustrade over the edge. I am told on good authority that it would not be surprising to learn that the family had sold off the iron balustrade panels, or stripped the interior for fittings to sell.

This is an ongoing tragedy – that one of the unique homes of Maine is treated in this fashion.

Gregory Hubbard

G Steffens said...

update hi guys thanks for the interest in the house......the arrows are back up.....the balustrade needed replacement and was a completely custom job.....the arrows are all there with the exception of one that is mounted on a garage on school street in sanford.....not sure how they got it but was told it was a gift from DR marshal......we have had to replace the porch -numerous full size columns including one small one on the balcony that was struck by lightning..also custom woodwork...mother nature almost took this house lol....the roof septic system & leachfield and all kinds of goodies in need of replacement.....we are in the process of restoring the inside upstairs right now.....the downstairs now has a modern style residential/commercial style kitchen with heated floor with custom wood & tile work......for 2015 the outside yard is being re imagined....its a lot of work restoring a house of this size design & age...but it will get there.....thank you again for the interest.

Kevin Murphy said...

Seeing your post years after the fact, having stumbled on it somehow or other, I remember that there are nice sketches of the Bow and Arrow House by William E. Barry, either in the Brick Store Museum collection or published in his Pen Sketches of Old Houses (1874).